What do you do with the kind of brain-dump that A Plague of Knowing represents? It’s tough to listen to them all the way through, front to back, because the songs weren’t composed with a single listen in mind; in fact, many of them were composed with seemingly no relation to one another. Odds-and-sods compilations are a tough proposition, for sure, but if you’re able to crack their code, much like the one surrounding Horseback, you’ll find a wealth of excess, a musical cup overflowing with ideas, vitality, and energy, always on its way towards becoming something else, something greater.
Nominally the solo project of Jenks Miller, lately of Merge-signees Mount Moriah, Horseback has been functioning in one form or another for several years now. Since 2007, Miller has released a variety of cassette, split, demo, and full-lengths on labels both big (Relapse) and obscure (Brave Mysteries), in varying styles. For many people, he emerged with Impale Golden Horn as a crafter of meticulous drone, full of strained harmonies and shoegaze layers. I personally discovered him via 2009’s The Invisible Mountain, a strange beast compiling grooving Americana, latter-day Neil Young guitar-picking, and croaking Xasthur-by-way-of-Tom Waits vocals. Its effect is to simultaneously uplift and obliterate, and Miller’s affection for esoteric subject matter like shamanism and alchemical transformation shows through both in his ideas and his approach.
Besides these major releases (2012’s Half Blood made a big splash on Pitchfork and NPR), Horseback has released a number of hard-to-find pieces of music, both on his own and under other labels. The first disc of Plague covers this 2007-2012 period, and its songs fall mostly in the style of his several full-lengths. “On the Eclipse” is a grooving slab of Invisible Mountain-style rock, with prominent keyboards and buried vocals. “High Ashen Slab” and “Another World”, taken from a split with Voltigeurs from 2010, are about as close to lo-fi black metal as Miller has gotten, though perhaps if Varg Vikernes had spent more time listening to the Doors and inserting funky organ solos into Filosofem. One of my favorite Horseback rarities, “Thee Cult of Henry Flynt”, is present as well, and positively roars in its psychedelic blast beats and twisted, feedback-laced back half. There’s even a rollicking live cover of the Stooges’ “TV Eye”.
Given that disc one hews closest to Miller’s most visible work, it seems likely that most fans of Horseback will find it the most enjoyable, even interesting. I know I did. Disc three’s two compositions, a live version of “Impale Golden Horn” and the forty-minute drone masterwork that gives this compilation its name, will also be of interest, particularly for fans of the band’s earliest work. Both songs counterweight the other: where “Horn” is minimal, lean, almost instinctual, “Plague” is lush, uplifting. One bleeds into the other, and if placed end-on-end they loop marvelously. These are the two sides of Miller’s artistic drive; these are the black and white parts of his soul.
If you noticed how I skipped disc two above, first off: good eyes. This is because it’s the true problem child of the bunch. Composed of an expanded version of 2012 cassette release Stolen Fire, the songs are a mix of cast-offs, demos, and odd indie-pop experiments unlike anything Horseback has ever done. Many of these seem to be composed purely of keyboard, drum machine, and clean vocal, and almost no idea feels truly developed. If I had a long road trip and only Plague stuck in a three-CD changer, I’d likely skip disc two nearly every time.
But then again, isn’t that missing the point? Stolen Fire was initially a dump of ideas in various states of becoming. They reinforce the creative process, demonstrating that Miller puts time and effort into developing his compositionally-dense songs. As the somewhat-hyperbolic (though not by metal standards) press release on Relapse’s website states, “the mangled forms on display in this collection are stitches in a larger fabric, however unsightly they may seem.” In order to get to the lushness of Golden Horn’s “Finale” or the “Hallucigenia” trilogy on Half Blood, you need something like “Do You Have a True Feeling? (Plagued Version)” or the synth-crush of “Luciferian Theme”. No artist works in a vacuum, and that includes the context of their own work. OnPlague, Miller provides the listener with an insight into what makes it and what doesn’t, and by serving it to us in a warts-and-all three-disc package, he positively chokes us with his output, daring us to swallow it as a whole. It’s a tall order, but if there is a modern band more deserving of this treatment, I don’t know it.